Like most of my patients, you’ve likely experienced an annoying (and painful!) spasm in your calves, toes, ankles, upper arms, or perhaps even your neck or lower back. They seem to come like a bolt out of the blue, often when you’re sound asleep, and all of a sudden there it is and it has you jumping out of bed ouching and owwing. What do you do? How do you get rid of it? Today, let’s talk about muscle spasms, what they are and what you can do about them.
What Causes Muscle Spasms?
Several of my patients complain about getting muscle spasms from time to time. When they tell me about their activity, diet, medications, supplements, and sleep patterns, I can usually pinpoint the cause of their muscle spasms, as it varies in different people.
Most commonly muscle spasms occur in the skeletal muscles and are brought on by dehydration and loss of glucose, potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium, five elements also known as electrolytes. Electrolytes can be depleted in several ways which can bring on muscle cramps including the following:
- Sweating: Working out, or working outdoors in very hot weather, and not drinking enough water can seriously deplete electrolytes through sweating.
- Medications: If you take diuretics (“water pills”) for certain heart conditions, if you take thyroid medication, or insulin, you could be urinating out a lot of electrolytes too.
- Exercise: Over-working leg muscles, such as in running or bicycling, can deplete fluids in the muscles and/or contracture of calf muscles (wearing high heels).
Second to electrolyte depletion, muscle spasms can also be caused by:
- Atherosclerosis: Hardening of vessels supplying blood and nutrients to muscles.
- Sleep disturbance: Nocturnal leg spasms, or restless leg syndrome, are actually a disorder of the nervous system.
- Anemia: Low red blood cell counts leave muscles depleted and undernourished.
- Kidney disease.
- Hormone imbalances.
- Nervous System Disorders: Spinal cord injuries, compressed nerves, multiple sclerosis.
- Dystonias: Groups of muscles can contract strongly and cause repetitive, involuntary twisting or abnormal postures which result in spasms. Wry neck, uncontrolled eye blinking, Parkinsons, or sudden motions that occur with stroke or seizures. These may require treatment with botox to relax muscle contractures that may develop.
- Stimulants: Too much caffeine, pseudoephedrine, or asthma/COPD drugs.
Really, everyone has probably had a muscle spasm at least once in his or her lifetime. However, children and people over 50 are more prone to them, perhaps, because over-exercising and dehydration is more common in these age groups.
How Can You Prevent Muscle Spasms?
Muscle spasms are no fun, forcing us to jump to attention from a sound sleep. I advise my patients that the best way to get rid of muscle spasms is to prevent them from starting. Here’s how:
- Stay well hydrated. You must drink at least half your body weight in water every day for general body functions, more if you are sweating a lot.
- Balance electrolytes: Potassium 2,500 to 4,000 mg daily from artichokes, potatoes, raisins, pinto beans, beet greens, white beans. Calcium, 1,200 to 1,500 mg from dairy, fish, green leafy vegetables, or supplements but divide calcium doses into 500 mg increments to prevent vascular irritation. Magnesium 600 mg from cocoa, spinach, legumes, halibut, almonds, soybeans, cashews.
- Pre–Exercise Warm Up: Stretch adequately and perhaps try a massage after exercise.
- Check room temperature: Your bedroom may be too cool at night which can cause leg muscles to cramp.
- Epsom soaks: Add 1 cup Epsom salts to ¾ full warm bathwater and soak for 30 minutes. The magnesium in the salts helps relax over-worked muscles.
How Can You Stop A Muscle Spasm?
The first thing you think of when you get a muscle spasm is what can I do to get rid of this darn thing quick! Since depleted electrolytes are likely what caused your cramp, replacing them quickly can get rid of that cramp fast. Try some of these remedies:
- Drink an 8 oz glass of V-8 juice, or milk, or calcium fortified orange juice. These also contain calcium and magnesium, which can help replace electrolytes.
- Eat a banana, or some white beans.
- Pickle juice is also touted to work quickly.
If these don’t work and your spasm persists, you might try some over-the-counter ibuprofen and gently stretching of the muscle in spasm. A little heat from a warm compress or a heating pad may also help iron out that spasm. If the spasm persists, call your doctor and/or visit an urgent care where they can administer a stronger muscle relaxant.
I know how distressing muscle spasms can be; I too, get them on occasion. However, you’ll get them less often, and they will not be as severe and take less time to alleviate them, if you can put a little effort into preventing them. Be watchful of a nutritious, electrolyte-preserving diet, remember to warm up muscles before exercise, and as always, drink enough water to stay well-hydrated!
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Natural Health News
Muscle Spasm Symptoms, http://www.medicinenet.com/muscle_spasms/page5.htm